July 31, 2012
Stanford physicist wins $3 million fundamental physics prize
Stanford physics Professor Andrei Linde has been named an inaugural winner of the $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize. The award recognizes Linde's work developing cosmic inflation theory, a modification on big bang theory that generates a more accurate description of the birth of the universe.
By Bjorn Carey
Stanford physics Professor Andrei Linde was recognized for his work on cosmic inflation theory. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)
Andrei Linde freely admits that when he began developing theories of cosmic inflation in the early 1980s, the concept seemed like pure science fiction. But, as experimental data has verified his work, inflationary theory has been accepted as a cosmologic paradigm. In recognition, Stanford physics Professor Linde was named an inaugural recipient of the $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize.
The new prize, which was awarded by the Russian-based Milner Foundation, recognizes Linde and eight other physicists for their "transformative advances in the field." It is the most lucrative academic prize in existence, and, unlike the Nobel Prize, is not split among winners. Each will receive a full $3 million.
When Linde was informed that he was a recipient of the prize, he was put in such a state of disbelief that he joked with the caller that he would consider accepting. "Then I realized that I was making the most stupid joke of my life, and said that I would of course accept it," he said. "It's a huge prize. It's unbelievable."
Linde was hand-selected by the Milner Foundation's founder, Yuri Milner, a Russian theoretical physicist and Internet entrepreneur who has earned billions through his investments. Linde and his fellow laureates will serve as the selection committee for future recipients; going forward, it is expected that the foundation will award one scientist a year.
The existence of a prize such as this is important for fostering theoretical science, Linde said. "We now have the ability to say these people are doing something fantastic. They might not get wide scientific recognition until there is experimental proof, but that is maybe 10 years from now, so let's do something good for them right away if we all agree that what they're doing is great."
Cosmic inflation – which was proposed by another Fundamental Physics Prize winner, Alan Guth of MIT, and refined and developed by Linde – is a good example of how a theoretical concept can take decades to gain critical recognition in the scientific community. "It looked totally like science fiction," Linde said. "It was absolutely speculative and strange, but also magnificent."
Inflationary theory began as a modification of conventional big bang theory. Instead of the universe beginning as a rapidly expanding fireball, according to this theory, the universe inflated extremely rapidly from a tiny piece of space and became exponentially larger in a fraction of a second while still maintaining its energy density. Following this inflation, Linde explained, the "inflaton field" decayed, the universe became hot and its subsequent evolution can be described by the big bang theory.
Linde later modified the model into a concept called "new inflation" and again to "eternal chaotic inflation," both of which generated predictions that more closely matched actual observations of the sky. Simulations of fluctuations in the inflation field can explain the formation of galaxies; several experiments, set up to either verify inflation or test alternative theories, have generated data that match Linde's predictions with great accuracy.
"This doesn't prove that it is totally true," he said. "We're always kind of waiting for what the next experiment will tell us." The current next experiment comes in the form of the European Planck satellite, which will test inflation theory with much more accuracy than previous models. Linde is keen to see results of the ongoing Planck research, which he describes as a "beautiful experiment," and is ready if the Planck data call for further tweaks to inflation theory.
As for the $3 million prize, Linde says he will wait a while before making any decisions: "For people who do not have a strong financial background, deciding what to do with this money is equally complicated as deciding what to do with the formation of the universe."